*** button-on clothing

Button-on Clothing

button-on outfits
Figure 1.--Ginger Snaps in 2002 offered these different patterns for these dressy button-on suits with both shorts and knickers. The term "suits" is commonly used for these outfits for younger boys even though there is usually no suit jacket.

Buttons have been widey used for keeping up the trousers of younger boys. Button-on clothing was not only fubctional, it was also a style. Button-on clothing has been an important boys' clothing style. We have noted button-on styling from the very beginning of dedicated boys clothing in the skeleton suit. Popularity has varied over time. Many styles have extensively used buttons. Often styles for very young boys use large buttons to make it easier for them to dress. The skeleton suit popular at the turn of the 19th century in particular used buttons. We note button-on pants being worn in the mid-19 century with blouses, cut-away jackets. and other suit styles. Some of these outfits were obsiously button on outfits because you can see the buttons. An example here is an American boy, Elmer Dayton in 1870. Others are less obvious, because the buttons did not show. We are not yet entirely sure why. We notice quite a range of juvenile button-on styles in the early 20th century. Some were called Oliver Twist suits. We note considerable offerings in the inter-war era, especially the 1920s through the early 40s. Age conventions have varied over time. We see outfits for schoo-age boys done with butto on styling. They were commonly shirts and short paired, but some were also done with longs. There was also a button-on shorts style that was popular in the 1930s and 40s.


HBC does not yet have a complete chronology of button-on styling. We have noted button-on styling from the very beginning of dedicated boys clothing in the skeleton suit. Popularity has varied over time. We have noted button-on shirt waists in the 1890s, but have less information on earlier periods. We note considerable offerings in the inter-war era, especially the 1920s through the early 40s. We note button-on styles for younger boys in the 1910s with large white buttons as a prominent styling device. Button-on styles were popular for boys up to about 10 years of age as playwear and school clothes. In the late 20th century, button-on clothes were mostly dressy outfits for younger boys. This styling has continued to be used in the early 21st century.


Burron on-styling has always been primarily for younger children. Of course there was always an uper range for button-on styling as the style was primarily for younger boys before they developed a pronounced waist. There were other approached to the trouser suspension problem, but button-on styling was secifically for younger boys. Belts and suspendrs were used by adults as well. Age conventions have varied over time. We are not yey sure above age conventions in the 19th century. We note some button-on shirt waists being done for boys up to about 12 years of age. We note a continuing wide age range in the 1920s through the ealy 40s when button-styles were particularly popular. We notice button on clothing offered for ages from todlers to about 10 years of age. After the early 40s, the popularity of button on clothing declined. We find it being offered mostly for pre-school boys and primarily a range of dressy formal outfits.


Button-on clothing was in part decorative. The large buttons were often in contarasting colors and used as part of the deoration for younger children. For older children they were generally made less obvious. The principal reasin for the button-on device, gowever, was simple--to hold the child's pants on. Young children have no defined waists and thus belts are less effective than on adults. Suspender shorts amd longs are an alternative, but the suspender straps sometimes are bothersome and can fall down. The button-on clothing has the advantage that there are no bothersome suspender straps and once buttoned, the child's panrs are securely on. There are also no offtending shirt tails that can come out of the pants.


The most famous style worn with button-on styling was of course the skeleton suit, thanks to Charles Dickens and Kate Greenaway. Many other styles for younger boys, however, have been made with button-on styling.

Skeleton Suits

The skeleton suit was a fashion staple for boys. It came in one and two piece styles with numerous buttons in necessary places. It was worn during the French Empire period and the British Regency era Skeleton suits were widely worn by boys throughout Western Europe and America. Well dressed boys wore skeleton suits in the last decade of the 18th Century and the early decades of the 19th Century, about 1790 into the 1830s. Precursors to the skeleton suits appeared even earlier during the 1770s. The skeleton suit was one of the first specialized styles worn by children as opposed to scaled down version of the styles worn by one's fathers. They were apparently called skeleton suits because the boys at the age the suits were worn were so slender. The suits thought this period had two primary features: high-waist, and front buttons. An open neck blouse trimmed with lace or other elegant trimming was another feature on many suits. It was one of the more enduring boyhood fashions and was worn by boys for more than half a century.

Sailor suits

The sailor suit was not one of the more common styles made with button-on styling. THis was because the popular middy blouse blouse ober the pants rather than being ticked in, complicating the use of button-on styling. Also during the period in which button-on styling was most common from anout the 1920s-40s, the popularity of the sailor suit was declining. Even so, sailor suits for boys have been made with button-on styling. This was the case both in America and Europe.

Oliver Twist suits

We do not know a great deal about Oliver Twist suits. They were outfits for younger boys that appeard at about the time that the Fauntleroy suit went out of style. There is not a lot written about them, but the term was commonly used in period ctalogs. The were primarily worn by pre-school age boys during the 1910s and 20s. The term Oliver Twist probably derives from the fact that these were button-on outfits, a style popular during the 19th century era in which the Dickens novel is set. At least that is the only common feature we note in the Oliver Twist outfts offered in catalogs. Other features such as sleeves, collars, and detailing varied widely. Very large collars were popular with many of these suits. String ties with tassels wee another popular feature. These suits were generally offered in sizes up to 4 or 5 years old, occassionally a bit older, but this was not very common. They were done in a wide variety of colors. This was a style for boys only.


A variety of button-on garments have been made for children. These garments were ideal for younger children that were just learming to dress and often had oversized buttons to make them easier to handel. They were also made for primary school age children that had not yet developed pronounced waists and needed some devive to hold their trousers up. Another alternative were suspenders. Button-on short pants are probably the most common button-on garments. They were, however, not the only such garments. There were button blouses and shirts to be worn with the shorts. There were also button-on long pants, but less commonly knickers. There were also button-on suits, but this term was commonly used for a dressy set of button on blouses and shorts without a coat. There were also button-on long stockings. There were also garments for girls like button-on shirts.

Button-on Shorts

A popular styles for boys in the 1920s-40s was button on short pants. They were shorts with button holes at the waist. They were worn with blouses or shirts that had buttons at the waist that fitted into the button holes of the shorts. They could thus be worn without belts. They were mostly worn by younger boys, but boys of up to about 10 years of age wore them. They were made in both casual play styles and fancy suits for formal occasions. There is more information at button-on shorts. While the casual styles are no longer worn, some formal suits for weddings and other dress up occasions are still worn.

Button-on Longs

There were also button-on long pants. They appear to have been less common than button-on short pants. We first note button-on longs in the 1930s, but they may have appeared earlier. They were oftn styled to look like regular shirts and long pants. The button tended to be smaller and less conspicuous then in the 1920s. Sometimes a self-belt covered the buttons.

Button-on Knickers

Button-on knickers were less common. We have noticed button-on knickers among the dressy styles that have been made for pre-school children since the 1980s.

Button-on Shirts

Some shirts for boys in the first half of the 20th century were made in the button-on style. This means that the shirts relatively large button sewn at the waistline. These buttons could then be buttoned onto the boys pants, usually short pants, making a belt unecessary. This style was considered practical for younger boys. The button on-shorts were generally made in sizes up to about 10 years of age, occasionally for larger sizes.

Button-on Blouses

Button-on Skirts

There were also garments for girls like button-on skirts. Button-on clohing was not exclusively for boys. While button-on shorts for boys seems to be the most common garment, there also have been button-on skirts for girls. We are less sure about when button-on clothing was first made for girls or how common it was. We do not have onformation on button-pon clothes in different countries. Nor de we know a great deal about what age lesvels it was designed form, but believe that older gierls than boys wore button-on clothes. As far as we know, these were girls' garments because by the time this style developed it was no longer common for little boys to wear dresses.

Button-on suits: 19th century

The skeleton suit was a button-on suit. Tey were worn in the early 19th century before the invention of photography. Thus most of our images are from paintings and drawings. We see related suits being woirn in the mid-19th century. The invention of photoggraphy mean that we have many images of these suits from mod-century. A good example is an unidentified American boy from the 1850s. Even larger numbers of images are available from the 1860s. Sometimes the buttons are displayed a part of the desisn. Other outfit haa waist flap to cover them up. We see these commonly in the 1850s and 60s.

Button-on Suits: 20th century

Button on suits were one of the many styles of clothing that developed for boys beginning in the 1910s as fewer and fewer boys wore dresses when they were younger. The button-on suits might be matching or coordinated blouses and pants. The pants were held on by buttons at the waist of the blouse that fitted into button holes in the pants. Young boys are very active and with their slender waists, keeping up their pants could be quite a problem. It was these buttons that conveniently kept the pants up rather than restrictive suspender arrangements or belts.

Button-on Play Suits

HBC is not sure at this time precisely what to call these suits. They appeard in the late 1910s and early 1920s. They came in a wide variety of styles and colors. Like Buster Brown suits and rompers, they were one of the first style of little boys' clothes to appear in bright colors. One of the destinguising characteristics were large buttons that the children could handle. Some of these suits had button-on shorts. Other styles were one piece suits.

Button-on Stockings

There were also button-on long stockings, although currently we only have information about these garments in America. A style of button-on stockings appeared for both boys and girls in the late 1930s. This style were in fact very similar to tights, but had button closures instead of a simple elatic band. They were made in a cotton-rayon blend. They apparently buttoned on to the child's underwear. The were available only in light colots, tan and white. Ward indicated that they did not wrinkle as much as long stovkings. They were, however, a good deal more expensive than regular long stockings. They certainly solved one complaint expressed by the boys wearing long stockings with short pants, that their stockings were no long enough.

Country Trends

Button on styling was popular for boys clothing. Boys had a spdcil problem. Unlike girls who wore dressess, boys after breeching wore separate tops and bottoms. And keeping up trousers was a real proiblem for boys before the teen years as they hd no defined waits. This was a problem thar boys in all countries faced. There were various ways of addressing trousr suspension and button-on grments was one way. We have limited informtion on mny countries. We note it being very commonly employed in American children's clothing, especially boys' clothing. Much of the information we have collected about button-on styling comes from Americam source, especially our large American Photographic archive. This might give the impression tht it was more common in America than Europe. This is a conclusion that we are to yet willing to draw. Our American archive is much larger than our European archives and thus can be misleading as to prevalence. We have also noted button-on clothing in many European countries as well. Button-on styling was popular in England and Germany and we believe several other countries as well, such as Italy. We do not yet, however, adequate information to assess country trends at this time. Styling conventions and chronolgical trends varied somewhat in the different countries.


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Created: February 23, 2002
Last updated: 10:21 PM 4/18/2023